Productivity: the ultimate hack of all hacks

Normally, I sneer at “productivity / wellness” hacks. More often than not, it’s banal crap that only exists to hijack your attention. “10 ways to improve your dating life”, “Top five wellness / mindfulness / nootropic stack tweaks”, “How I fixed my ADHD/Asperger problem in five days”, “Switching to standing desk cured my depression” – endless oversimplified Medium post-style bullet point idiocy with close to zero nutritional value.

However, in the last years I discovered a very simple hack that worked amazingly well for me and that I want to share with you. The hack is:

Stop following posts with clickbait titles.

Like, seriously. if someone promises you the ultimate productivity hack, but doesn’t disclose what it is right away – don’t ever click, run. The devious Satanic bastard preys on your attention and mental resources. Are you strong enough to resists the Pavlovian urge for a quick dopamine fix? Can you say: “You dishonest motherfucker, I saw through your trick! But I did my homework on navigating the overstimulating online environment, I’ve got 100 hours of Alexander technique under my belt, so I don’t act reflexively. I can, and do, make a fully aware choice of NOT clicking on your link and open one of the 10 browser tabs instead!”? Can you?

Let me know if the advice worked for you!

This lady doesn’t need productivity hacks. She just IS, in the full glory of raw human energy.
Ivan Petrovich, PLEASE! Can I have my next dopamine fix?

School and disembodiment

[Warning: contains ranting against school. This is a sketch of some general ideas, each paragraph would call for a separate essay. Comments welcome.]

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment and its connections to cognition, happiness, synesthesia, creativity etc. By “embodiment” I mean constant awareness of our body’s different qualities (weight, shape, breath, tension, touch), feeling the body, treating it as an integral part of one’s self as opposed to being a “brain in a vat”, for whom the body is just “cumbersome hardware for cool software”, an external object to be thrown around.

For a very long time, I was in large part a stereotypical math nerd. I shunned body awareness and physical activities (apart from mountain climbing), preferring books or computer screen. Quite recently, I got interested in doing physical stuff which was new to me: spontaneous and meditative dance, free improvisation, yoga, contact improvisation, different types of body work. In the process, I discovered I’m actually a kinesthetic person and physical expression comes quite naturally to me, even though obviously the ease and flexibility are not there yet. So, for many years I had been alienated from an important channel of experience, understanding and sensitivity. How did this happen?

As often is the case, a major culprit for developmental barriers is school education.

90% of school time is spent sitting at a desk. All the expression happens verbally and the main mode of thinking is analytical or “left brained” – reading, writing, speaking, listening. Expression through voice or body is banned from the classroom; a young human being is reduced to an immobile brain, processing streams of words and symbols. Sometimes this is supplemented by images or movies, which steps away from the verbal, but still keeps us confined to the visual mode. For 6 or 8 hours a day, the student’s sensual experience consists of feeling the chair, the motion of moving a pen and the kinetic ecstasy of throwing paper balls behind the teacher’s back. Day after day, the kinesthetic, experiential self is systematically starved. (Physical education classes are usually gymnastics or playing team games, which may have health benefits, but give little focus to the type of body awareness I have in mind)

This overreliance on vision, as opposed to touch and movement, has deep roots and far reaching implications. I have a half-baked idea that vision and physical experience manifest two very different modes of interacting with the world. Vision is all about treating the world as something external, “out there”, as a set of objects that can be manipulated, evaluated or safely studied from a distance. Body is about participating in reality, breaking the gap between the observer and the object. We are used to be curious with our eyes, but the body can be curious about the world, too. And while the eyes are under full conscious control, it’s easy to get into a state where the body “does things by itself”, if we allow it to. This is the difference between watching a theatrical play as an audience member, safe from the onstage madness, and participating in a contact improvisation jam, being swept along. As Jim Morrison wrote in his penetrating notebooks [1]: “We have been metamorphosised from a mad body dancing on hillsides to a pair of eyes staring in the dark.”

This split between two types of thinking – rational, evaluating, disembodied and unconscious, affirmative, embodied – seems to be very central to a large part of “Western” thought. The sorry state of school education in this respect mirrors the huge bias against the body and the unconscious that our philosophy and other parts of culture have developed over the centuries. To this you have to add the world increasingly oversaturated with text and images, often virtual, leaving little space for touch and other senses from the “analog” realm. There is a dear price paid, alienation and negative mental and emotional states (side note: it seems to me that men suffer from this more than women). Here, I treat the mental benefits of being anchored in the body as obvious, but of course the Neurotic Parent would need more convincing (a separate essay).

In present day school, you couldn’t have meditative dance classes because spontaneous dance cannot be judged, it just “is”. And the school system is fixated on grades and evaluations to the level of neurotic nightmare. But let’s dream. Suppose that we get rid of grades and introduce a curriculum with improv theater, free dancing, mindfulness and awareness practice. Allow the students to sing and paint with their hands. Soft skills, social skills, learning healthy interactions, unlocking the nonverbal sphere. Would you send your children to such a school? (I, of course, wouldn’t – it doesn’t prepare for the exams, right?)

And a quote from some body work Facebook group that I found quite inspiring:

“Most of us were raised in disembodied communities that devalued inner knowledge, emotional development, and present-time awareness. For instance, how many people do you know that learned to breathe in kindergarten? Basic instruction in breathing can help people develop the ability to calm or energize themselves at will, to tolerate strong emotions, and to stay rooted in the present moment. Physical education exists in our schools,  emphasizing important physical capacities such as strength, endurance, and coordination, needed for competitive athletics, but it tends to leave out everything else: INNER SENSORY AWARENESS, SUBTLE ENERGETICS AND THE EMBODIED ASPECTS OF EMBODIMENT! Attention to gesture, posture, facial expressions, voice intonations, and breathing allows us to attune to the person’s inner experience. Directing persons to strategically alter these non-verbal expressions, as well as working with movement, body symptoms, touch, and other kinds of physical contact, provides a repertoire of powerful interventions to explore and alter a person’s inner world.”

[1] http://www.doors.com/ftp/books/Lords.html

Improv on the right side of the brain

The mind likes synchrony – encountering two things at the same time often prods the brain to look for common themes and meanings [1]. Recently I’ve discovered the wonder of free improv (described here) and finished reading Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book about drawing with a cognitive psychology icing. Not surprisingly, there is a shared thread in both.

From L-mode to R-mode

Betty Edwards is an art teacher and her starting point is a paradox often encountered when teaching people how to draw. If the essence of realistic drawing is just “drawing exactly what you see”, why is learning to draw often so difficult? Everything needed for drawing is “right there before the eyes”, and yet adults without art training, when asked to draw e.g. a self-portrait, often produce childlike, symbolic drawings that bear little resemblance to the image “out there”. Why does “seeing exactly what’s there” seem to be a specialized skill that requires a lot of time to learn? Is there some cognitive mechanism standing in the way, some pattern of perception that needs to be unlearned?

The answer, according to Edwards, is yes. The mind seems to be equipped with two different mode of perception and information processing that the author dubs “L-mode” and “R-mode”. The origin of these names comes from the “left/right hemisphere”, and their nature matches the “pop psychology” notion of what the hemispheres do. “L-mode” is verbal, logical, sequential, analytic; “R-mode” is visual, intuitive, holistic, synthetic. “R-mode” deals with actual reality; “L-mode” replaces it with symbols and abstractions. It’s a fair question whether such a sharp divide really exists, and if yes, whether it has a firm neurophysiological basis. The author makes a pretty convincing case that at least as far as drawing is concerned, the split between two modes seems real, regardless of its underlying mechanism.

The “L-mode” deals with words and abstract knowledge, and it’s quick to categorize, evaluate, know “how things should be”. As soon as it recognizes something as a “chair” or a “face”, it’s happy to forget about the exact features of the object, which are deemed “not interesting, not relevant”. As such, it gets in the way of seeing the object as it really is, with all of its irregularity, lines at weird angles, foreshortening that defies the “L-mode”‘s straight, linear thinking. The perception of the actual object is distorted by preconceptions and symbolic knowledge. To be able to draw, one needs to get rid of them and revert back to the state of “pure seeing”.

A simple exercise neatly demonstrates what’s going on. Many students struggle with copying a picture showing some person’s face. Yet, when asked to copy exactly the same picture, but turned upside down, the results are surprisingly good. Turning the image upside down makes it easier to view it as just a collection of contours and shades with no “meaning”. Faced with such a bunch of lines, the “L-mode” gives up, allowing the mind to enter the “R-mode” and do the drawing without any “L-mode” interference or internal chatter. Many more exercises like this are presented, and in all of them the key is to switch off the part of the mind that thinks logically and filters, that “knows”. Once the “R-mode” is achieved, drawing “exactly what’s in front of the eyes” is within reach.

The author’s theory is backed up by her experience from teaching drawing classes, and apparently learning the “L-to-R mode” trick works exceedingly well, even for students who thought that drawing would be a hopeless task. I picked up drawing a year ago and my own experience more or less agrees with this. I’ve never experienced an abrupt “L-to-R” shift, and I can’t say there was a definite moment when I “learned how to draw exactly what I see”; maybe it came quickly and smoothly so I didn’t notice it. That said, I do see a difference in my mental state when I draw – I hardly “talk to myself” (apart from things like “OK, this line goes like this”), I easily lose the track of time (apparently only the “L-mode” is temporal [2]), I’m sharply focused on the present, on the concrete images before me.

What I like about Edwards’ approach is that she views drawing as more than just a cool technical skill. Instead, learning to draw is really “learning to see” and as such drawing can be considered a form of meditation. By freeing the mind from preconceptions and analytical thinking, we are able to see the beauty and complexity even in small objects and details, things that “L-mode” would consider “not worth our attention”. Drawing offers the kind of refreshing purity of perception that allows the artist to be closer in touch with the world out there, not contaminated by symbols and abstractions.

Improv and drawing

I find it quite amazing that drawing and improvisation seem to be grounded in the same mode of thinking and perceiving. As in drawing, in improv the key step is to switch off the default state of mind – filtering, naming, evaluating – and get close to the (epistemologists pardon my foul language) “raw reality out there”. I’ve written a bit about the “magical” quality of free improv in the previous post; and visual artists of various kind were – at least before the advent of irony – often considered to have “divine” or “magical” powers. How sad that the whole realm of “R-mode” activities (drawing, improv, discovering space via physical action, trance states and dancing, and probably a host of other things) is almost completely banished from education. Probably because, you know, “R-mode” is “inefficient” (optimizing is “L-mode” business) and producing “efficient workers” is kind of what schools are for, right? And let me double check the calendar if it’s still the 1800s…

As a postscript, idle pastime – invent a spiritual system or historiosophy in which all human activity is eventually aimed at escaping the “L-mode” prison and achieving the “Lost Eden of R-mode”. Make this THE quandary that has occupied all genuine artists and thinkers, from Heraclitus to the Beat poets. The Biblical original sin is nothing more than the triumph of left hemisphere over right hemisphere, symbols over reality. Most likely it all started with the invention of agriculture, anyway. Base everything on ill-understood, but fancy sounding bits of neurophysiology, establish an underground sect of improvisers aimed at “liberating the human soul worldwide, one soul at a time” and off we go.

[1] Like in: “I recently watched “The Wire”, read Pynchon’s “Gravity Rainbow”, listened to Metallica’s old bootlegs – and they turned out to be about the same thing.”

[2] Which seems to agree with my introspection while doing meditation, when it seems that “time is generated by thoughts”, and focusing on breathing and the body, on the here and now, makes time dissolve.

Free improv

Everyone would like a school that produces people who are happy, open, spontaneous, in touch with other people and themselves. How to achieve this?

Change one thing. For one semester, get rid of incessant tests and evaluations. Ditch math, biology, English. Replace all this with classes of free improv.

What is free improv?

photo: Michał Kotowski
photo: Michał Kotowski

Free improv is a technique of improvisation that I learnt recently at a workshop taught by Piotr Filonowicz (https://warsztaty-aktorskie.home.pl/warsztaty-wyra%C5%BCania-g%C5%82osem-i-cia%C5%82em.html, in Polish). It’s a bit hard to describe, but in its essence, it’s a method of spontaneous action, mostly via physical movement and voice, using cues from our body, surroundings and other improvisers. It has something in common with improv theater, but there are important differences: free improv does not require an audience and is not stage oriented; emphasis is on authenticity, not acting; free improv is mostly nonverbal (although words can appear from time to time).

I’ll describe a couple of different exercises, but the underlying rules are the same:

  • Action should come from the body or emotions felt at the moment, not from the intellect.
  • Be spontaneous, follow fleeting impulses and sensations.
  • Constantly be “in the present”, at each moment be totally aware of yourself and your surroundings.
  • Do not judge, criticize, evaluate (yourself and others). Anything goes.
  • React, don’t plan.
  • Allow yourself to play and be surprised by yourself. If you have an “idea” what to do, abandon it and do something else.

The goal is to achieve a frame of mind where one can perceive and act with childlike innocence and curiosity, without plans, preconceptions and evaluations. Always reacting, without hesitation or fear of judgement. Perceiving the world in a fresh and intense way. The description may sound cliched, but this is what actually happens and the experience is incredibly liberating and refreshing.

To be spontaneous, one needs a relaxed body. A lot of time each day was devoted to physical warmups, massages and exercises helping to let go of physical barriers, tensions, apprehension of physical contact etc. After that, one is ready for improvising! One of the first exercises was physical improvisation in pairs. Person A is passive and person B touches A in any way they like. B then freezes and A immediately reacts physically  – ideally, the reaction should be without forethought or “censorship”, coming from the body itself. After A freezes, B follows with another touch, and so on. Even such a simple exercise can be surprisingly rich with emotions and expression. An ideal state is when the mind and body of the passive partner are like a gas canister, waiting for a spark to set it on fire. This doesn’t mean that physical reaction should be dynamic or abrupt – it could be a subtle movement, but with maximal internal intensity. Even micro-movements, even silence can be vibrant with the same or bigger energy as screaming and flailing.

DSC_1162
photo: Michał Kotowski

Another exercise I liked a lot was “the tamer and the beast”. One of the people is the “beast” and has to act physically and vocally (in any way). The “tamer” concentrates 100% of their attention on the beast and whenever they notice a pattern in the beast’s behavior, they shout: “Change!” and the beast should immediately change everything (use different speed, different dynamic, change position, use other limbs etc.). The tamer can use “change” whenever they want, and as the exercise continues and the intensity rises, it’s usually used more and more, until the beast has no time to  cling to any fixed pattern. One of the goals is to make the beast as tired as possible, to get rid of control and make it more difficult to think and plan. So the tamer has to be like a good sadist (just like God, in a sense…).

There were many more pair and group improvisations. A lot of singing, telling stories using nonsensical words, improvisation using touch, smell and sound. A full tour through sensual and physical experience.

Each day ended with “the aquarium”. The room was divided into a central space and margins for the spectators. At any time, anyone can enter the space and act; once they feel they are not needed anymore, they leave. In one of the variants, actors in the aquarium should obey rules: there can be at most 4 people at the same time and they may only stand, walk, run or sit, with neutral expression (so as to build tension and energy using minimal means). The audience should keep full awareness of what’s going on in the aquarium and what arouses their curiosity. At any time, it may happen that the situation needs you, that you will feel the impulse to enter and act. As the time goes, more and more rules are broken and in the end the aquarium becomes the stage for “free improvisation” where everyone participates and everything is allowed. The idea that  an empty room with a bunch of people watching can induce enormous intensity may seem far-fetched, but after a whole day of free improv, the “empty space” is teeming with sparks and impulses, is radiant with strange energy and pressure.

Impressions

photo: Michał Kotowski
photo: Michał Kotowski

All the participants said the workshop was a unique, fantastic experience. An experience after which it was hard to come back to normal life, with its dullness and limitations. The mix of unpredictability, “letting go” and having a safe playground created free flowing emotional expression, sharp perceptions, feelings of closeness and intimacy among participants. One participant wrote: “Imagine that two people meet on a desert and don’t know any conventional reactions or rules of communication. The very fact of meeting another human being would be a grand event that unleashes curiosity and imagination. This is what happened during our exercises.” This reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Waking Life, the scene about “not being an ant” (couldn’t find it on YT, here is the script: http://wakinglifemovie.net/Transcript/Chapter/14)

Time for my impressions. For me, the most interesting and intense were short moments of heightened perception, when I thought “I don’t know what will happen with me in 3 seconds, but it’s all right”. A few times I felt connected to the aquarium’s energy, the space inside felt dense with some magical substance. It felt like a sacred area that calls me to act, do something that only I can deliver. Sometimes I was so focused on the present that after leaving the aquarium I didn’t fully remember what I did there. I was also exhilarated by lack of “second guessing” – whatever you do, you do with full certainty. If you don’t know what to do, be fully lost, amplify this feeling, let your utter confusion be an impulse to act.

During the 3rd day the instructor said: “Think that the aquarium is a safe space. Anything can happen there. Maybe I’ll enter and after two seconds I’ll be killed by a landmine – but it will be a good, cool kind of death”. I found that very inspiring – for me, the best metaphor for the aquarium is a “waking dream”. Various things happen and one can experience everything intensely but safely, assured that in a while the waves will flow and wash everything clean – a new scene will begin, I’ll be someone else. I’m free to allow myself not to be “me”, to act without sense or purpose, like in a dream. A couple of times I felt that the aquarium is like the room from Tarkovski’s “Stalker” – a place where dead phones ring, where anything can materialize, from death to ecstasy, but I can safely submit to whatever happens.

What I like about free improv is that there is no need for plot or characters. Of course one can imagine some context for a situation (that it happens in a prison or a garden etc.), but for me it was sufficient to observe abstract actions, the dance of shapes, motion and human dynamics without any particular sense or context. Maybe even more than the aquarium I liked the meetings before, when we sat in the hallway and the instructor told us what the exercise would be about. It felt like “something big is going to happen now”. The school where the workshop took place became something mysterious, magical, everyday objects looked out of ordinary. A very subtle, cursory feeling like from a high school summer camp, when friends sit in a dorm’s hallway, everything around is silent, the air is warm, nothing happens but maybe the wind will bring the scent of evening, Boris Vian, love, playing music together, going somewhere deeper, deeper…

Bottom line

Free improv changed something in me. For a large part of my life, I was a typical nerd 😉 and ignored physical activity as something irrelevant, a waste of time. At the workshop, I saw very concretely how physical action, being flexible and relaxed, can lead to soft, free, spontaneous action, to deep feelings and connection to other people. The experience of free improv is so unlike everyday life, dominated by planning, controlling, deliberating, by intellect, distance and irony, that I’m sure there are many more lessons to be drawn from here.

After the workshop, I came back to Budapest on a night train and listened to music. Every song, from Metallica to The Doors, sounded like if I was listening to something called “music” for the first time in my life…